The Company We Keep

The lame duck...

...and the loon: BFF?

Did you know soon-to-be-former CT gov Jodi Rell has high regard for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? She loves being in the same company with him and the enlightened ayatollahs.

And the Communist swells who rule China? Jodi thinks they’re way cool. Betcha she’s even got an old Mao jacket tucked into one of her closets.

And when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the ol’ gov would drive the lead car in a parade honoring the ruling sheiks’ high-minded principles (except, of course, women can’t drive there).

Is any of this true?

Not that I know of. Could be. Probably not. But this I do know: when Governor Rell had the chance last year to disassociate herself from those despotic states, she punted. She’s ok with the fact that like the Chinese, the Saudis, and the Iranians, the good people of Connecticut can execute other human beings.


I’d never thought of Rell’s veto of the bill to abolish the death penalty in those terms before. But last night’s panel discussion at Yale on capital punishment put the issue in a new light. One of the three panelists was Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon, Brooklyn-born but not so proficient in English after spending most of his life in Puerto Rico. Certainly not proficient enough to keep his butt off of Florida’s Death Row, where he sat 17 years (and 8 months and 1 day) for a murder he did not commit. Melendez, though, caught a break, thanks to DNA evidence. He is one of the exonerated.

Bill got it--why not Jodi?

He recounted his efforts to get departing New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to sign that state’s abolition bill. Richardson looked at the facts: The three countries named above, along with that budding Middle East democracy Iraq, lead the world in executions. Richardson decided he did not want to associate himself and his state with those regimes. He signed the bill, making New Mexico one of 15 states with no death penalty. Rell could have made us No. 16, but she has this thing for Persian rugs and moo shu pork, a jones, that she just can’t kick.

Actually, the more likely impetus was political, along with her own beliefs. At that point in 2009, Rell hadn’t decided (or publicly announced, anyway) if she were running for reelection. And the biggest capital-punishment issue to hit the state since Michael Ross (executed in 2005, the first one in the state in 45 years) was in the air, just as it swirled around the discussion last night. The heinous 2007 home invasion/murder of three members of the Petit family was brought up then; now, with sentencing underway and public opinion for the death penalty running high, it dims any hope of passing another abolition bill in the state. (Recent poll stats for CT: 76 percent of state residents favor executing Steven Hayes, the first of the Petit defendants found guilty. 65 percent favor it overall, a number, I bet, that reflects the media coverage of the trial and the depraved nature of the crimes.)

But all that won’t stop Gary Holder-Winfield from introducing the abolition bill again. The New Haven state rep – and another panelist – believes in the cause, and he did the hard work that got last year’s bill through the General Assembly. Holder-Winfield is an African American representing a poor inner-city neighborhood. He knows too well one of the realities of the death penalty in the United States; its use is highly arbitrary, with blacks and Hispanics disproportionately sentenced – unless the victim is another minority.

The good representative from the 94th District

Holder-Winfield sponsored the last bill even with Hayes and his accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, still making news, thanks to the publication of a book about the crime (a more sensational one followed the next year, after Rell‘s veto). Then he faced the strong views of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two children at the hands of Hayes and Komisarjevsky. Articulate, handsome, aggrieved; how could lawmakers resist his pleas to “fix” the death penalty rather than abolish it, his assertion that “any penalty less than death for murder is unjust”?

Somehow, though, they did. Holder-Winfield convinced enough legislators to look at the facts that the ACLU, Amnesty International, and pro-abolitionist forces have known for years. The death penalty does not deter murder. It is costly to administer, given the appeals process. It discriminates. And using it puts the United States as a whole, and the 35 individual states that have it on their law books, in the dubious moral company of Iran, Iraq, etc. (See this for an earlier take on our ranking as a killer nation). And of course, it leaves innocent men like Juan Melendez, and their families, wondering if they are going to be killed for crimes they did not commit.

Yes, “killed.” Killed by you and me and everyone else who lives in a state that allows the death penalty. Those murders are carried out in our name. The third panelist, Larry Cox of Amnesty International, said that words like execution and capital punishment are just euphemisms for what the death penalty really is: prisoner killing, “cold-blooded extermination of a living being by the state.” And where is the logic, or morality, in saying killing is wrong, so we’re going to kill you if you do it? It is not justice; it is vengeance. And as Holder-Winfield said, the “state should not be in the business of vengeance.”

Cox offered some hope for abolition in Connecticut and other states. The historical tide is in its favor. In 1977 – around the time when AI began to really address the death penalty as one of its core issues – only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today, almost 100 have, and about 40 more have de jure abolition; capital punishment is still on the books but is never used. And in most cases, when nations consider moratoriums on capital punishment and study the facts, they usually take the larger leap to total abolition.

I don’t share Coxs’ faith, though, that the penalty would be expunged from the U.S. or state statutes. Not when Holder-Winfield said that too many politicians who support capital punishment refuse to change their minds even after presented with the facts. If voters in their state support it, they will too, with an eye to the next election. Holder-Winfield believes a lawmaker’s (or governor’s) responsibility is to educate him or herself on the issues, then educate constituents as well. Bill Richardson was able to do it. Jodi Rell? Well…

To the three panelists, the death penalty is clearly cruel and unusual punishment and so unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court once thought so too, albeit briefly. It does allow some restrictions on how capital punishment is used, sparing the mentally ill and juveniles. But for real abolition to occur, it will take more lawmakers to realize the facts. The death penalty does not deter crime and is unjustly applied. The poor, minorities, and the mentally challenged are more apt to wind up on Death Row. Yes, it is the responsibility of lawmakers to educate themselves and the voters on issues and then show some character and act on facts, not emotions and a desire for vengeance. But sometimes the voters have to lead the way. The crowd last night was mostly young and sympathetic to the panelists’ arguments. Maybe they will become the new teachers.

Many in the audience were law students. They listened intently when Melendez described how capital punishment affects defense lawyers. He was lucky (if any innocent person can really feel lucky while sitting on Death Row): he had top-notch appeal lawyers. Others near him did too. Those lawyers become emotionally attached to their clients, especially the ones they see railroaded. The lawyers feel a sense of loss, of despair, when their efforts are for naught and a client is killed. One of Melendez’s attorneys saw five clients executed. That lawyer dreaded when the time came to say, “There is no more hope.“

Perhaps victims’ survivors, like Dr. Petit, don’t care about an inmate’s hope or a lawyer’s pain. They are focused on their loss, their suffering. I understand. But not all survivors support the death penalty. Some do not want the state to kill in their name. They speak out for abolition. They realize execution “won’t make you even, it won’t bring him back.” Just as we can’t bring back anyone not fortunate enough to be exonerated, as Juan Melendez was. Here’s hoping Holder-Winfield gets his bill passed again – and that Tom Foley loses next week, as he’s already said he wants to hang out with Jodi’s good buddy, Mahmoud.


~ by mburgan on October 22, 2010.

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